Memoir: In his memoir of an idyllic summer, Padraic Fallon tackles a difficult subject for Irish writers; happiness. Reviewed by Colm Tóibín.
In 1595, in his house on the River Slaney, south of Enniscorthy, Lodowick Bryskett wrote a poem on the death of his friend Sir Philip Sidney. In the fourth line of the poem, he invoked the River Oworn, which Emerys Jones in his New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse glosses as "an Irish river".
It is, in fact, the River Urrin, one of the tributaries of the Slaney, which joins the larger river close to where Bryskett lived. This world along the river between Enniscorthy and Wexford town, and stretching south towards Bannow and Kilmore Quay and Arthurstown, is a place of astonishing stillness, mystery and beauty. It has a gnarled history, Danes, Normans and Gaels mixing - in harmony these days - with descendants of Elizabethan and Cromwellian planters. Thomas Kinsella set his poems 'Another September', 'In the Ringwood' and 'A Country Walk' in this territory.
Others, such as John Banville in Mephisto and Billy Roche in his plays, have conjured with this watery territory laden with soft light, much talk in old-fashioned speech patterns and a strange, languid sense of defeat. Painters such as Tony O'Malley and Paul Funge have worked in this cultivated landscape. Poets such as Anthony Cronin and Padraic Fallon have been inspired by its culture.
Fallon, a customs and excise officer, moved to Wexford in 1939, at the age of 34, with his wife and three sons, one of whom is Brian Fallon, the art critic, and another Conor Fallon, the sculptor. Three more sons were born in Wexford; the last of these, Padraic, born in 1944, has written a memoir of a golden summer, described in loving and idyllic detail, in the early 1950s, when all the brothers were home in Prospect, the Georgian house on 20 acres which the family owned outside Wexford town. Padraic Fallon the younger works on a small canvas, using a limited emotional register, managing nonetheless a portrait of great intensity and sense of truth of a subject which has been difficult for Irish writers. This is the small matter of happiness - ordinary, easy-going family life, good parents, with nothing to regret except that time has passed. It has been one of the great absences in much Irish writing.
That Fallon has achieved this without seeming forced or becoming sentimental is a credit to his eye for detail and his care not to paint in tones which are beyond his range. A few fields, a few local characters, a few outings, some visitors and the changing weather offer him subject enough.
The domestic animals in his book - including some wonderful cats, temperamental cows, a bird perched on the kitchen dresser, dogs and pigs and even foxes - are remembered with ease and fondness. Being the youngest of the family also offers him some drama, as poor Padraic misses out on excursions, hunting trips and certain jokes.
Fallon made a decision to change the names of the local towns and rivers. This is strange because they are so fully and accurately described in his book. The main street of Wexford, with Buckland at one end and White's Hotel at the other, could not be anywhere else, nor could Curracloe, nor the Blackstairs Mountains. This flatness between the Blackstairs and the sea, with the River Slaney and its tributaries and its estuary, offers the Fallon boys immense excitement as they learn to fish and shoot rabbits and sail with skill and care and a sense of comic and serious adventure. Fallon's version of the local dialect and local manners and wit would make you long for home.
While the landscape is the main protagonist, the hero of the book is the poet, Padraic Fallon senior, and his wife, Don, who are drawn here with a real sweetness and affection. The poet, who comes from the west, immediately took to Wexford and loved the town and its people, as they loved him. He did not go to Mass; he took life easy as a good civil servant should; he wrote journalism and poetry, often working late into the night. His friends and visitors included Frederick May, Tony O'Malley and Austin Clarke, in whom his sons, isolated on their small farm outside the town, took a huge interest.
There is a sense here of books and music, poems and paintings, songs and classical learning as being as essential to life as working or eating.
The book ends with a description of a river journey by the brothers in a small locally made flat-bottomed boat known as a cot, seeing this landscape in a new light. "The rolling country," Fallon's brother tells him, "and rich history was the old Ireland, a beautiful, sleepy, inland backwater, a land that had changed remarkably little over the centuries."
A Hymn of the Dawn, which slowly builds to become hugely affecting, works by placing a time that has gone against a sense of the timeless.
Its experience is precise and exact, but it also has a lovely sense of a season which belongs to us all. It is also a timely book and should be read by 10,000 civil servants. It will be especially useful for those who harbour the slightest doubts about the benefits of moving from Dublin to a house on 20 acres outside an Irish town and letting the new place become a site of the pure unstressed happiness which is remembered here with such gentle and modest grace.
Colm Tóibín's new novel, The Master, will be published by Picador in March
A Hymn of the Dawn. By Padraic Fallon, Lilliput, 387pp. €17.99